Amazon Fantasies and Realities
A Responsible Traveler Takes a Magical Mystery Tour
Have you always wanted to visit the Amazon but you are terrified by the idea of being lunch for a school of hungry piranha? Or falling out of a dugout canoe into the swift-moving waters of the world's biggest river? Or getting sick from contaminated water? Or being bitten by strange insects carrying deadly diseases?
All in all, a trip to the Amazon could be a very scary adventure.
On the other hand, have you ever imagined cruising up a mysterious, glass-topped river reflecting the ever-changing rainforest canopy and a clear blue sky? Or looking through binoculars at birds and butterflies of every conceivable color, description, and size--from the tiniest of hummingbirds to the biggest heron or noisy Screaming Piha? Or enjoying well-prepared meals in an air-conditioned dining room with panoramic views of the river? Or setting out each day on flat-bottomed motorboats to explore inland lakes, egret rookeries, or native villages--followed everywhere by the playful pink river Dolphins that the local people say will entice them into the unknown waters never to return?
Prepare to spend some time way beyond the last vestiges of "civilization," and give up the nightly news of bombings and killings. Instead, learn to paddle a dugout canoe on an endless river and swim in silky cool waters on a hot day after a walk into the jungle. Follow me as we paddle back to La Amatista--our mothership and dragon-headed home away from home--so well-designed and professionally staffed that it was easy to feel safe and comfortable floating in the midst of a thousand mile flood!
The river is truly a magical living being, able to transform the most obsessive personality into someone willing to lie down for a nap both before and after lunch or while awaiting the bell to board the boats for another adventure deeper into the jungle. Perhaps today we might spot an elusive band of howler monkeys or a big caiman sunning on the shore or maybe a prehistoric Hoatzin bird whose babies have claws on their "elbow joints."
Earlier this year, I joined the La Amatista Amazon Riverboat Voyage under the auspices of the Ohio State Alumni Association tours to accompany my 78-year-old-father, who had recently recovered from open-heart surgery. As an advocate of responsible travel, I was amazed (and pleased) to experience the extent to which International Expeditions, the U.S.-based tour operator, and Jungle Expeditions, the local provider of the boats and crews, were committed to protecting both the environment and the cultural heritage of this amazing ecosystem.
We were given every opportunity to see, hear, photograph, and learn about the profuse abundance of flora and fauna; yet this was not at the expense of the safety and sense of security needed by the birds and animals in order to nest, breed, and raise their young. The crew members were skilled and professional and yet there was also a feeling of family about the way they worked together, sharing roles and responsibilities by day and playing music together on the top deck at night.
As a responsible traveler, I pondered the effect of our mere presence--a strange bunch of rich North Americans sailing by on a very large boat--on the people of a little village or on an isolated household where the whole family might own considerably fewer tangible goods than each of us casually tossed into our suitcases when packing for the trip.
I tried to imagine what I might think and feel if I were a local child watching in awe and waving at these strange pale people: Did I want to become just like them and move to some faraway place? Or did I feel sorry that they obviously didn't know how to live with the river in perfect harmony as my ancestors had always done? Was I afraid that my way of life would disappear in the wake of the fantasy lives these outsiders seemed to live?
During our week on the river we were welcomed visitors at two villages. We were invited to walk around, take pictures, and ultimately to trade some of our money with the women and children who had made necklaces and bracelets as well as toy canoes, paddles, bows and arrows, and blow guns--smaller versions of the ones that are still being used for hunting in the rainforest.
Our guides, who had grown up in Amazonian villages much like those we visited, translated not only the words but also some portion of what each of us was attempting to express. I wished that I could give our hosts something better than an American dollar bill in exchange for their necklaces of seeds and nuts. I thought about "La Doctora," the woman doctor from Wisconsin who came on a voyage like mine and returned 10 years ago to become the only medical doctor within many miles. She saw what was needed and dedicated her life and her gifts to the well-being of the people. Although it was a romantic thought that I too could settle down here and do some good, I knew that I now had the incentive to return home to complete the tasks I had started.
I was glad to know that the tour organizers were using some of my money to support the people who protect the habitat in these remote areas. Local people had been hired to build the boats we were on, and much of the food we ate was grown by villagers outside of Iquitos. In addition, International Expeditions played a large part in the creation of ACEER, the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research Foundation, the place I traveled down river to visit after escorting my father back to the airport at the end of the first week of my journey.
ACEER, www.aceer.org, is world famous for its Rainforest Canopy Walkway, a series of swinging bridges connecting platforms built into the treetops so that visitors and researchers can easily and safely access this unique part of the world's ecosystem.
After a time with the animals and birds in the forest canopy, it felt good to return to the comfort of my single bed under a mosquito netting. Explorama Camp was built to duplicate the quarters that the local people have lived in for centuries--with a few extra amenities like divider walls. Light in the rooms was provided by kerosene lanterns. Tin cans with a hole for the burning wick lit the way to latrines and the shower rooms. On the way you might meet the resident agouti or the half-grown capybara--both of whom resembled giant guinea pigs as playful as your favorite cat.
The local people here (95 miles or so downriver from the town of Iquitos with its 600,000 people, and 2,300 river miles from the mouth of the Amazon) are more "worldly" than those we had seen upriver in the headwaters; yet, in a visit to the clinic of "La Doctora," I was reminded of the conditions of my Peace Corps days of 30 years ago.
Cuzco and Machu Picchu
On the third leg of my trip, I left the lowland jungles of the Amazon basin and journeyed by air another 1,000 or so miles upstream to the Urubamba River in the Andes and the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco. Here the highland people who live in the rarefied air at 11,000 feet tend their herds of sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas and farm the ancient crops in lush river valleys surrounded by snow-covered peaks. The houses are made of stone and adobe. The air is cool, and rain clouds, misty skies, and rainbows are continuous.
After two full days in the ruins of Machu Picchu and two nights in a the beautiful hotel "El Pueblo," in the little town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the mountain below Machu Picchu, I climbed the 11,000-foot peak called Huanya Picchu which rises practically straight up into the air, one of the two mountains that guard this sacred ceremonial site. Looking down on Machu Picchu from this height was dazzling (not to mention dizzying).
After a soak in the Aguas Calientes municipal hot baths and another day in this friendly little town, I returned by train to enchanting Cuzco, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the western hemisphere, before returning--a slightly altered person--to my "normal" time and space at home in Oregon.
Amazon Contact Information
International Expeditions, Inc., 1 Environs Park, Helena, AL 35080. Contacts: Tom Grasse or Alisha McDonald at (800) 633-4734 or (205) 428-1700, fax (205) 428-1714; email@example.com, www.ietravel.com. International Expeditions offers a dazzling array of environmentally responsible nature expeditions.
Jungle Expeditions, Pevas 199, Iquitos, Peru. Contact: Roberto Rotondo at (011) 51-94-23-1870, fax (011) 51-94-23-1157; www.junglex.com. This company that supplies boats and staff for the Amazon Voyages currently has three river vessels of varying sizes with two more under construction. The standard of quality and service is high.
ACEER (Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research Foundation), 10 Environs Park, Helena, AL 35080. Contact: Kristine Bremer at (205) 428-1700 ext 157, fax (205) 428-1711; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.aceer.org; in Peru: (011) 51-94-24-1640; email@example.com. This U.S. and Peruvian nonprofit provides rainforest education and research facilities and programs such as the International School-to-School Program, the Volunteers in Environmental Service Program, and International Rainforest Workshops.
Explorama Tours, x 446, Iquitos, Peru. Contact: Peter Jenson or Pam Bucur at (011) 51-94-25-2526 or 2530, fax (011) 51-94-2533; in the U.S.: (800) 707-5275; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.explorama.com. This group provides transportation, food, lodging and experienced guides for the Explorama Inn and Lodge and the ExplorNapo Camp located near ACEER and the Canopy Walkway.
Peruvian Odyssey. Lima office: Avenida La Paz, Off. 301, Miraflores, Lima, Peru; (011) 51-14-44-8797, fax (011) 51-12-42-4751; Cusco office: Pasaje Pumaqchupan # 831, Cusco, Peru; (011) 51-84-22-2105, fax (011) 51-84-4167. Provided the guide and pick-up services for Machu Picchu extension.
Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Andalucia 174, Lima 18, Peru; (011) 511-4226574, fax (011) 511-4224701; email@example.com, www.inkaterra.com.pe. While very expensive, this hotel is beautifully done in the style of the old colonial period and so far has resisted "modernizing" with Westernized intrusions on true Peruvian elegance.
Ohio State Alumni Tours, Alumni House, 2400 Olentangy River Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1061. Contacts: Jeanne Cobb or Patti Pennell at (614) 292-2372 or (800) 852-8687, fax (614) 292-7697. You do not have to be an OSU graduate or student to participate in their numerous tours.
To learn more about the city of Iquitos and other opportunities in the Amazon, contact: Gerald W. Mayeaux, Tourist Manager, Maynas City Hall, Napo-226, Iquitos, Peru; (011) 51-94-235621; firstname.lastname@example.org. This retired American oil man has taken up the challenge of resurrecting Iquitos from a city left behind after its rubber baron days.
To learn more about the adventures of Dr. Linnea Smith, get her book La Doctora: The Journal of an American Doctor Practicing Medicine on the Amazon River; to support her work to provide medical care for the people near the sites of the Explorama Lodges, contact: Amazon Medical Project, 5372 Mahocker Rd., Mazomanie, WI 53560; fax (608) 795-2646; email@example.com, www.amazonmedical.org.
Finally, Hidden Amazon by Dick Lutz (available from International Expeditions) tells the story of one traveler's experience on a trip similar to mine and is good reading for those who aren't quite ready to face the real thing.